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I was so looking forward to meeting Lionel Martorell. He is one of the last farmers in Spain who still practices transhumance, each spring taking his cattle up to the hills, and then accompanying them back down to the plains in the autumn. “Be in Fortanete tomorrow,” Lionel had said.

Fortanete is a village high in the hills of the Maestrazgo. It is a neat place of just two hundred folk. Life at over thirteen hundred metres is not easy in winter, so it is no surprise that Fortanete’s population has been dwindling for the last century and more. Cast back three or four hundred years and Fortanete was a hub in the web of cañadas that criss-crosses Spain. In its heyday, that network of rural trails stretched over a hundred thousand kilometres, four times as long as Spain’s national rail network today.

Hardly had I stepped off the bus from Teruel when I was ushered into a nearby bar and told that Lionel would be along shortly to meet me. The locals who acted as interim hosts all spoke from the same script. “Transhumance is dying a slow death, its end is inevitable,” said one man sadly, going on to recount how not so long ago thirty families in Fortanete were still involved in seasonal movement of livestock. “Not so nowadays,” explained the man. “Just Lionel and one other family,” he said.

It was not long before I was being introduced to Lionel and the rest of the team that would take part in the journey. “So you and I, of course,” said Lionel, “plus four stockmen on horseback and two more on foot.” Any illusions I had about the romance of the journey were put on hold when Lionel went on to explain about the back-up truck that would carry all the supplies needed for the journey. This was clearly transhumance with a modern twist.

Over dinner, Lionel talked about preparations he had been making for the journey. “The vet was here this afternoon, and he says that the cows are in perfect shape. So we can head off at dawn tomorrow. We’ll cover one hundred and forty kilometres over five days,” he explained, going on to declare that this journey is in his genes. “We are all from Amposta, down in the Ebro river delta. My father raised livestock and he would travel to Fortanete and back with his herds every year. I am following his footsteps, I’m forty-seven now and I’ve been doing this journey for over thirty years,” said Lionel going on to explain the web of cultural, social and family links that exist between the hill villages around Fortanete and the communities in the Ebro delta region. “Even my wife is from Fortanete,” he laughed.

A short night’s sleep and, even before the sun appeared over the nearby hills, we were preparing to leave. Ninety-one cattle leaving their summer home for the coastal pastures where they will live until next spring. The cows are Avileña, a hardy native breed much valued for their tasty meat. A full grown beast may top the scales at six hundred kilo. Weight is no impediment to speed, as I found in the first hour or two of our journey.

Soon it was becoming difficult to keep up with the herd on foot. “See how the same two cows are always leading the way,” said Lionel in one of his intermittent tutorials on bovine behaviour. “These are animals that have done this journey before, they recognise the route and set the pace, well aware that they are heading for better pastures.”

I had been expecting a rather relaxed pastoral stroll through country by-ways, a chance to enjoy some sunny days and catch the flavour of the old cañadas. Lionel evidently sensed my apprehension that the stroll of my imagination was turning out to be a mad dash. “Fear not,” he said. “There are lots of calves in the herd and they will tire soon. And we’ve had good pasture in the mountains these past weeks, so the cows are heavier than normal. They will not carry on like this for thirty kilometres every day.”

As long as we were following a well defined drove route, the cattle followed their instincts and demanded little of the stockmen. But the domesticated cow is easily distracted, and as soon as we entered a forest where the trail was no longer confined between walls, the capacity of these beasts to wander was all too evident. The horse riders were hard pushed to keep the bovine procession in some sort of order, clearly anxious that if the animals wandered away from the trail and slipped into the pine forests, they would be very difficult to recover. The riders worked in concert with the stockmen on foot, together blending into a skilled team that orchestrated our progress. A gentle prod with a stave here or there, just enough to return a wandering cow to the straight and narrow.

Once out of the pine forests and back on a maintained cañada, life was easier. These old drove routes are full of evidence of their historic role in facilitating seasonal migration of herds. There are signposts, huts, pens and water troughs. “But things are not being maintained the way they should be,” said one of the horsemen.

At sundown, we were still on the trail, but soon thereafter we reached our first overnight stop. A local farmer allowed us to sleep in his barn whilst the cows rested in a nearby pen.

Over a simple supper, the herdsmen reflected on the role of transhumance in this region of Spain. Those gathered around the fire agreed that the work of a migrating shepherd can be thankless, tough and sometimes monotonous. “Yet it is in our blood,” said Lionel, who clearly believes that there is something fundamentally virtuous about following the path of history.

“Thousands of years ago, wild cattle followed the same migratory routes. How do we know that?” he asked. “Traces of early nomadic hunters have been found both in these mountains and in the Ebro river delta. They were following their prey, in broad terms taking the same routes as us. They followed wild cattle on their seasonal search for better grazing land and climate. All we have done is domesticate these animals, yet in essence the process is identical,” said Lionel with a flourish. Here was a man whose evident love for and interest in his profession can win over hearts and minds.

The sun came up as the next stage of our journey began. The herdsmen were always keen on an early start, anxious to make the most of the dewy chill of the morning. There were many kilometres to cover. And the weather was kind to us with warm daytime temperatures and no hint of frost or snow. The team were quick to agree that the early summer trip back up to the mountains is much tougher. “The sun’s heat is stronger and the rocks and the asphalt stretches scorch the cows’ hooves. The cows and us all suffer on some parts of the trail from a lack of shade,” said Lionel.

Even on our journey, there were a few problems. There were stretches of the cañada which were very rocky. And sections which have been converted to motor roads, where the tarmac can really damage the cows’ hooves. With some of the animals already shedding blood and the whole herd very thirsty, spirits were low. But eventually we reached our overnight stop where some good grazing provided respite for the animals.

Spain’s cañadas are green corridors across the landscape, travel routes that should be linear meadows. Too many of them have been asphalted, a harsh intrusion of modernity that threatens the cañadas. And, just like crofts in Scotland or allotments in Germany, the cañadas are green spaces surrounded by legislation. Each cañada must have a minimum defined width of just over ninety metres, and the principle is that on the cañada, livestock are king. They have right of passage, the right to graze and right of way. Yet the degrading of the meadow ecology along the trails and the encroaching tarmac is making the movement of livestock ever more difficult. Land owners quietly extend their boundaries and take over areas that are properly part of the cañada.

Our herd of black cattle had to run the gauntlet of main highways which cross our route. The herdsmen had to endure complaints and abuse from land owners unhappy at the presence of cows on their orchards and groves. “Things can get nasty,” warned Lionel, as we left behind an irate woman upset at the cattle’s incursion into her olive grove. “We do all we can to stop the cattle from going into their farms and plots, but the truth of the matter is that they are the ones not abiding by the rules. If only the authorities would assist us in this instance. The drove routes are clearly demarcated by law, and shown so clearly on cadastral maps. But look, many of these trails we are using are only a fraction of the original width. Housing, orchards and crops are on land that is designated for livestock movement.”

The day ended in the almost deserted hamlet of La Llacua, where a small barn catered for our needs and an electric fence enclosed the cows. As the temperature dropped at night, Pascual lit a fire and we all enjoyed dinner, coffee and punch made with liquor, sugar and fresh rosemary grabbed along the journey. These soirées were the finest moments of the journey. The heavy breath of content cattle in the background, and around the fire the last masters of the caña­das swapping anecdotes and gossip, hope and regrets. “You are bearing witness to the death throes of transhumance in Spain. Only three percent of cattle in Spain still make these seasonal journeys, and the numbers are dropping,” Lionel said. “People just don’t see the advantages of this practice. It uses its own resources and it gives us excellent products. The cañadas are natural spaces free from pesticides or herbicides, but if transhumance disappears so will the cattle routes.”

This is not just a question of preserving a way of life. Scientists and conservationists are quick to remind the public that Spain’s traditional pastoral practices contribute to nature conservation. Many elements of both mountain and lowland ecosystems survive thanks to transhumance. As the cattle move from one area to another, they reduce pressure on the land, avoiding the overgrazing that can lead to the extinction of species and soil erosion. On the other hand, grazing along the cañadas helps keep the trails clean, stops forest fires and contributes to tree regeneration.

At present, one of the biggest arguments in favour of transhumance is the role it plays in the maintenance of biodiversity. The next day, Pascual, one of the horse riders and owner of the lowland pastures to which we were heading, reminded us of the importance of cattle in the dispersion of species. “They carry seeds in their stomachs and also on their hooves, these are transported for hundreds of miles enabling species to spread,” said Pascual. The decline in transhumance, it seems, is having negative implications on genetic diversity, endangering flora and fauna at all levels. The decrease in seed dispersion has knock-on-effects on insects. “Everything is interconnected,” said Pascual. “Even the presence of rodents, vultures, cranes and reptiles will be affected by the demise of the cañadas.”

The journey continued through the province of Castellón, the cows advancing slowly along minor roads, hill trails and valleys, the Mediterranean woodland giving way to orange groves, holm oaks, almond trees and olive groves. By the end of the fourth day, the cows’ pace had decreased dramatically and the calves were forced to rest at times in the back-up truck or in the jeeps that came to meet us. The herd had managed to complete an average of thirty kilometres a day, but the animals had been stretched to the limit by the terrain.

On the final night of the journey, I awoke very early and watched a star-studded sky that I had long forgotten can still be seen in rural Spain. Its serene composure reminded me how transhumance is in tune with the landscape and the environment of this region. The herdsmen do not have easy lives, but they have a contact with nature that most of us have lost.

We were about to enter Catalonia, and Amposta was now merely a day’s walk distant. The last day of a journey rich in history, and a reminder that pastoral traditions that have served Europe well for centuries are now sorely threatened.

© Copyright - Diego Vivanco